Ryan Day was driving back from a recruiting visit in Cincinnati on Friday night when the fortunes of his Ohio State team shifted dramatically.
The No. 5 Buckeyes got the help it needed to make the College Football Playoff with Utah’s 47-24 victory over No. 5 Southern California in the Pac-12 championship game in Las Vegas.
The Buckeyes (11-1) look like a lock to be one of the four teams picked Sunday. It is a remarkable reversal of fortune for Ohio State. Its 45-23 loss to Michigan last Saturday made the Buckeyes a long shot to make the CFP. But losses by Clemson and LSU last week made the path more tenable, but they were still on the outside looking in.
Not anymore. The Buckeyes were the only one-loss team in the country entering Saturday's games. Georgia, Michigan and TCU were undefeated. But TCU fell to Kansas State 31-28 in overtime in the Big 12 championship game.
“I think our team is deserving,” Day said. “We have a top-10 win. Playing at (No. 8) Penn State, that was a great win. We have another top-25 win (over Notre Dame). We’ve won 11 games by double-digits, have a top-five offense, a top-15 defense, and a (probable) Heisman Trophy finalist at quarterback (C.J. Stroud).
“I think we’re more than deserving of an opportunity, and I think our guys are going to be really excited about the opportunity here because it’s been a tough week.”
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The loss to Michigan was difficult, of course. So was knowing they had no control over their postseason destination.
“That’s not a great feeling,” Day said. “But once we get our opportunity, we've got to seize it, wherever that is. We’ve got to win two games.”
The CFP selection committee will weigh whether Ohio State should overtake TCU for the third seed. If Ohio State plays Georgia, it would likely be in the Peach Bowl in Atlanta.
“They’re a very good team,” Day said. “They have very good players. They’re defending champions. It’ll be a big-time challenge but a challenge we’re dying to have an opportunity to face.”
The other playoff semifinal possibility would be a rematch against Michigan. The rivals have never met twice in the same season.
“That would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Day said.
Especially coming after the devastating loss last week.
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“I think everybody in the entire Woody would die to have the opportunity to go play them again,” Day said, referring to the team’s Woody Hayes Athletic Center. “We have a great group of people in the Woody. I think our guys are resilient. They know how difficult it is after losing that game when that’s your goal. We knew who we had to lean on during that week.
“Now that we may have an opportunity to go play together as a group, I know we’ve learned a lot in the last week about ourselves, and I think that’s going to be important as we go into the next month.”
Even after last week’s loss, Day held out hope that the Buckeyes could make the playoff field. That’s why they had two practices last week.
“Usually, we don’t practice, but we did to kind of keep our edge,” Day said. “We’re going to focus on whatever comes our way here in the next 48 hours. Certainly, there’s no way we wanted to end our season the way it did. To have another opportunity like that would be unbelievable.”
Day said he followed the USC-Utah game on his phone and the radio Friday night. USC took a 17-3 lead before Utah rallied after Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams became limited by a hamstring injury.
“Early on, it looked like it was going to go USC’s way, and then it seemed it turned quickly,” he said.
“We knew this was this was one of the things that probably had to happen for us to have an opportunity,” Day said. “It’s so strange when you’re not in control of it, but we’re excited about the opportunity.”
Day said the Michigan loss “took a chunk out of us” and wasn’t something the team got over in a couple of days.
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But he told his team that Georgia lost badly in the Southeastern Conference championship game last year to Alabama and rebounded to beat the Crimson Tide in the CFP title game.
“We spent our time focusing on things we didn’t do well," he said, "but by the end of the week we were looking forward, and now we’re really looking forward.
“It has been an emotional rollercoaster. But when you go through a few days when you think that maybe your whole season’s gone and then you start to see the opportunity where everything’s right in front of you, it’s almost like a second lease on life.
“There’s been a whole swing in the whole program here in the last 24 hours. The guys were sending text messages last night and really excited.”
Ohio State looked and played tight against Michigan, and Day said there were no excuses for that. But he said his team will have a different approach in the playoff.
“We’re going to play loose,” he said. “We’re going to be aggressive, and we’re going to go at people. There can’t be moving forward anybody in our program that presses at all or feels pressure. We’re just going to roll, and I think we can be a dangerous team in the playoff.”
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This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Day said Ohio State 'has got to seize' College Football Playoff chance